I first met him (in a musical sense) with the Sting album Ten Summoner’s Tales. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – the sharp cymbal sound, the crisp snare; the fact that Colaiuta had his head around 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures – playing in 7/8 here on St Augustine In Hell. I think Ten Summoner’s Tales is probably Sting’s best album – it’s the only one I can listen to right through these days – and I think a huge part of it is Vinnie.
Around the time that I first heard Vinnie’s playing (when the Sting album was released in 1993) I remember chatting with a drummer who said he had seen Vinnie play with Joni Mitchell in the 1980s. He had also bought a record by Barbra Streisand because Vinnie was playing on it!
I remember thinking that I would not want to listen to something like a Barbra Streisand album just because of one player.
But that was then.
Obsessed with Colaiuta’s playing on the Sting album I was then introduced to the crazy world of Frank Zappa and my favourite Zappa album (still) is Joe’s Garage. The first I heard. And it features a young Vinnie throwing subverted reggae rhythms, touches of jazz and plenty of funk and rock in to Zappa’s song-cycle. He’s one of the stars of the album.
From there another Sting album was released. And I got my first glimpses at Vinnie when watching the MTV Unplugged video that features a few songs from The Police years as well as Sting material from The Soul Cages. Tasteful playing.
So it was Zappa and Sting that I listened to when I wanted to get my fill (of Vinnie’s fills!)
And then I started to discover the work with Joni Mitchell and watched Vinnie at the Buddy Rich tribute shows.
He played on Steely Dan’s “comeback” album, Two Against Nature. By this point I was such a Vinnie-nerd I spotted his name in the credits to the Mike Figgis film Time Code. I was collecting mentions of Colaiuta; banking them – checking out his playing in all these different contexts.
I saw Vinnie live a couple of years ago when Herbie Hancock played. Overall I was disappointed with the gig – Herbie is great of course but the cheese-aspects (a version of I Just Called To Say I Love You?) got in the way a bit too often. But I got to see Vinnie play! And this is when I understood the comment about checking out Barbra Streisand just to hear Colaiuta’s contribution.
It’s the reason I check out YouTube clips like this one (a Nik Kershaw song; stick with it. The groove is trademark and three minutes and fifteen seconds in to the song you will hear a crazy-sick drum fill. It might make you giggle. It’s absurd. It’s astonishing. It’s something only one player would think of and very few can do. It’s Vinnie being Vinnie).
It’s the reason I have Don Henley’s greatest hits collection (Actual Miles) on my iPod. For one song: The Garden Of Allah (specifically for the four-second drum-fill that takes place 25 seconds in to the track – click on that link and hear it; maybe stay for the monster groove that rolls the song along).
My best discovery about Mr Colaiuta (I realise I’m probably losing readers by the paragraph) is that he played on the opening theme to the TV show Alf. You can check it out here. It’s him. You can hear it in the hi-hat; the way he half-splays, the way he plays…the moments that take place between his fingers and the stick, between the stick and the cymbal, between his foot and the pedal and the relationship between all of them.
There are so many great YouTube clips of this amazing player.
And a scan of his recorded discography lists, among hundreds, names as diverse as: Leonard Cohen, Backstreet Boys, Travis Tritt, Faith Hill, Bob James, Robben Ford, Michelle Branch, Mike Stern, the soundtrack to Queen of The Damned, Stevie Nicks, George Benson, Jill Scott, Destiny’s Child, Glen Campbell, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Juice Newton and Megadeth.
I’m still finding records in my collection that he played on – most recently Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat.
Now, I am not saying I plan to go through and listen to all of those artists because he played with them; but I am sure I could spot his playing and it would give me something to appreciate about the song/s – even by artists I do not like.
What I am saying is Vinnie Colaiuta’s playing would turn me on to a record. Definitely.
And the funny thing in all this? The only album featuring his playing that I haven’t enjoyed? His own. I bought his self-titled solo album. And, sure, songs like I’m Tweaked feature some amazing time-signature changes and some sharp playing. But it doesn’t carry the groove and soul of his sound. That’s so often the way with studio players – given the freedom to follow their muse they release a load of wank.
I had a second chance to see him just recently, part of the supergroup of two sprawling bands playing as one behind Sting and Peter Gabriel. There he was nailing all those amazing parts to so many Sting songs, but also playing through some of my favourite Gabriel songs too. When they hit into Red Rain it was perfect for Vinnie to cover the hi-hat part added to the original by one Stewart Copeland. A nice little tie-in there I thought.
Vinnie’s a session guy. I usually get bored with them. But there’s something about so many of his grooves. It goes beyond “just” chops. His feel is impeccable. Precision – yes. But there’s heart there too. And he plays as if placing an extra pop-hook within the songs. A drummer so proud of his craft. One of my all-time favourites.